We lived in a tiny town on the coast of Oregon for only a year, but I miss it a lot. It seemed to rain all the time, yet I never used an umbrella. Clouds sat on the ground, so walking to work was hazy and misty, like a dream. Sometimes the wind whipped the rain right up your nose and you had to cover your face to avoid choking. We lived a five minute walk from the beach, down a steep hill that at the end of an hour’s walk we had to climb back up. At the beginning of the year, I thought I would die. At the end, I was chattering all the way up to the house. I forgave that little town everything for the tidal pools, the ocean vistas, and the consistently cool weather.
“Where’s my robot? I’m cold and I’m thirsty.”
“She’s coming, Grans,” said Carloni.
The small, pink and blue android strolled into the room with a blanket under one arm and a steaming mug in the other hand.
“Ah, thank you, Lazonea.”
“My pleasure, Grans.”
Grans smiled. She would take all the grandkids she could, and her android lived to please her, though one must ignore the fact that they were programmed to do so and simply enjoy.
“Lazonea, are you a girl?”
The android tilted her head and replied, “I’m not sure,” and tilting her head the other way, continued, “what that means.”
Carloni eyed Grans with a frown, “Grans, androids aren’t girls or boys. That was eons ago. Androids are androids.”
Grans’ face went slack. She turned to Carloni, “Are you a girl?”
Her grandchild came to her side, knelt by her chair, and spoke softly, “Grans, I told you, gender went out of fashion 50 years ago, before I was born. I’m not a gender. You’re one of the last females.”
“I’m so confused,” said Grans as tears welled in her eyes.
Carloni held her hands and placed their head on her lap.
Sam slung his backpack over his left shoulder, hearing his mom’s voice in his head to carry it properly, but he didn’t worry about shoulder problems—he was young. Waving goodbye to Paolo, he flung open the school door and bounced down the stairs to freedom and grabbed his phone out of his backpocket. He texted Paolo about their plans later on, and what did his best friend think of Lili, the new girl—should he ask her out? Sam loved those girl next door types. As he walked down the sidewalk, a car lurched off the street and into the front steps of the school, knocking down seven students, the driver barely conscious from a stroke. Turning left onto Baker, Sam received a text from his cousin about the weekend family cookout, if he wanted to do something afterward. They passed ideas back and forth by thumbs while Sam waited at 4th Avenue for the light to change. With the little bird signal for the blind announcing it was safe, Sam continued on without looking up. He walked past a cop arguing with an old lady about the pothole in front of her house. She was giving him the evil eye gesture and speaking in a foreign language. Just before making a left turn onto Seburn Street, his mother’s text made him stop. A millisecond later, a skateboarder whooshed in front of him, causing his hair to lift in the skater’s direction. His dad had broken his leg at work and was laid up on the couch. Sam had to stop at the convenience store on 4th Avenue to get his dad some ibuprofen. He kept walking—a horn blared at him. In the store, he walked through water to pick up the medicine and put money on the counter without looking around. The cashier apologized for the water line break and could he just leave the store already, whilst waiting on the phone to the owner. Sam snatched up the medicine and walked back to Seburn, a right turn now to head home. He dropped his backpack on his dad, who hollered at him to put it away, walked past the kitchen, where he greeted his mom, and answered her question about his day, “Nope, nothing much happened today.”
“Get off my car!”
She pressed her big-eyed face against my windshield, the girl in the faded Victorian dress. Upside down, hair swirling, she looked demonic. A wedding veil clung as if by magic, whipping her moon face with her faded hair.
“The sign warns drivers about you!” I screamed at the woeful apparition. Finally, she dissipated just before the sign proclaiming, “End of Vengeful Ghost Area.”
Writing Bad Facebook Group writing prompt photo
Cherry blossoms fall outside through the hazy sunlight, causing Henri’s heart to jump at the possibility. But no, it isn’t her, only halos and silhouettes from the angle of the light through the window.
Having heard of Houdini’s pact with his wife for whichever one died first to come back and report of the afterlife, Mina researched spiritualism, witchcraft, religions, anything and everything to learn how to return, even practicing astral projection. Phone calls to family and friends confirmed her recall of astral visitation, shaking Henri’s paradigm with her accuracy. Her seemingly lifeless body inert on their bed, safely guarded by him, perturbed him more. Periods of separation lengthened, panic rising in his throat like bile, perils of astral projection haunting him in the interim. The last time, he waited hours and she didn’t return. By the next day, her body lay deathly still, while he sat staring in his sleep-deprived terror. Days. Weeks. Months. She looked perfect, requiring nothing, inexplicably preserved, so that he maintained his hope that she had not actually died.
Now the cherry blossoms again taunt him with their shadows in his growing belief that he will witness somehow the return of her essence to her physical self, three years on.
The galloping hooves echoed throughout the courtyard seconds before the fiery horse appeared. By fiery, I don’t mean a red horse, but a horse that appeared to be flaming. I could totally see him painted across the side of an F-150 or the rear window of a vintage Bronco. He was fabulous!
With skeletal hands and the predictable black, hooded cape, the rider had to be Death. He pulled the steed up short, making it snort black smoke, and dismounted with an impressive leap to the asphalt. I returned to my story on the computer. These daydreams of mine are so freaking vivid.
It was a few moments before I realized that the knocking was on my apartment door. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Whoever was rapping was quite eager for my attention. I don’t normally hear anything from my office. Peeking through the peephole, I couldn’t believe it. Death was rapping at my door.
“Death?” I stage-whispered.
“Yes,” he replied, staring straight into my eye, his own black as anti-matter, or so I imagined. “Please open your door.”
I shook my head, though he couldn’t possibly see me.
I stopped shaking my head.
He continued, “I prefer you open your door, so that I don’t have to rip it off. I didn’t come her to commit vandalism.”
He stood still and quiet while I opened the door slowly. Probably I needed to invite him inside, so I waved my hand in a vague, step inside gesture. He dropped his head in a gentle, thanking motion, and walked down the hall into my living room, settling on my purple sectional. Death pet my couch and nodded, with a skeletal grin. “Nice sofa. Purple is my favorite color.”
I stared at him. Then I asked him if he wanted something to drink. He requested milk, so I poured him a tall glass. Death wanted his milk warm, so I transferred it to a large mug and nuked it. When he placed his finger bones on his skull chin, I wondered out loud what he needed, and he requested hot sauce for his milk. After I handed him his milk, he dumped in a shitload of hot sauce, stirred it briskly, handed the bottle back to me, and sipped his milky, orangesicle-colored drink.
He gestured to me to have a seat, so I sat on the edge of my yellow-print, slipper chair across from him. Death grinned, which looked like a grimace, but I could tell he was getting comfortable, sliding down and leaning back into the fluffy pillows, tilting his drink carefully. A conversation was looming—I could feel it like a storm coming. As I watched him sip his fiery drink, I realized Death had no smell.
“Well,” he said after finishing his milk and smacking what should have been his gums, “Clack, clack!”
“Do you have to take me now?” I asked, mentally calculating what I could resolve before I was snatched away by Death: call my mother and tell her I love her, feed the cats, start a load of laundry for the hubs, and sillier stuff, even locking the cats in another room so they wouldn’t eat me.
He sat up and clasped his bony fingers. “I’m afraid so.”
“But can’t we talk about it? Like in the movies, negotiate…you can take my husband. Hahaha!” I’m a shit wife, but I was only joking, right?
“I could, but it’s not really a fair trade, since he has three more decades allotted him, and you’d be those three decades without him. Is that what you want?”
I shook my head. That would be awful. I was not the best at taking care of myself, an epiphany that rattled my brain in that moment. Think, think, think! “What else can I offer?”
“You have four cats. I could take one. Choose.”
I actually gasped. “But-but-but they’re my babies.” My mouth hung open and I couldn’t close it.
“I know. Negotiation requires sacrifice.” He placed his glass on a coaster and leaned back into the couch. “No worries. I have time. My next appointment is this evening at six.”
One tear rolled down my face and onto my hand as I snurfled to contain myself. I could feel my chin quivering, which I absolutely hated. Loathed is the word, I told myself.
“You’re not even thinking about it. Self-loathing is pointless, in any case.” He stood up. “Ah, I do love high ceilings. Those eight foot ceilings suck, don’t they? I hate scrunching down, kills my back.” He walked to the hall as I held my breath in disbelief that Death was leaving my home without me. Large cracks startled me and I turned to see the excessively tall, dark-cloaked skeleton twisting and turning.
Prompted to continue being the hostest with the mostest, I jumped up and followed him to the door, where he turned to me and informed me, “You’re smart. Cats are a great bartering tool. One cat gives you not only forty more years, but it adds that extra decade to your husband’s life span to match yours, so that you’ll die days apart. Romantic, eh?” He winked. He actually winked at me. Like a joke.
That evening, I asked the hubs, “If you had to give up one of our cats, which one would you choose?”
“Why would you ask me that? What a stupid question!” He turned back to his book, holding it up in front of him to emphasize the fact that he was now ignoring me purposely. I sighed and returned to my own reading.
Three weeks later, my littlest muffin was hit by a car. Four weeks later, my sweetest muffin contracted leukemia. I held my breath mentally all the time, fearful of losing all of them. Death was cheating me. He was a cheater. Death was a cheater. Cheater, cheater, cheater! I told everyone. They agreed.
When I finally stopped expecting Death to visit my home again, the hoofbeats cannoned into the courtyard, and the fiery steed was brought to an abrupt halt. Half a minute later, the knock on my door told me Death was here to have another conversation. It took all my effort to not wet my pants. I strode swiftly to the door before I lost my nerve.
“I’m sorry. I won’t say it again. I’ll do whatever you say. Just please stick to our deal.” Tears were flying everywhere as I screamed apologies and begged him to just go away.
“May I come in?”
I nodded and moved aside. He strolled to the living room and plopped on the sofa.
“Ah, that’s nice. I do so wish that I could come for a real social visit. Your home is so welcoming.” He gestured to the yellow chair, so I sat, sniffling up mucus noisily, choosing not to care at all of propriety. Death pointed to the fridge; well, his finger bones sort of curved down in the direction of the fridge. Using his other hand, he straightened the finger and waved it again.
I heated some milk and brought it and the hot sauce. He stirred the hot sauce longer than he needed to, while he sighed and groaned and moaned. He set everything on the coffee table and leaned forward, picked up the drink, glugged it, and proclaimed, “Fantastic!” Setting it down, he said, “Listen, I don’t cheat. It really pisses me off that you’re telling everyone I’m a cheater. It’s a goddamned job. I’m not an asshole. It’s just my fucking job, okay?”
I nodded, but heard myself say, “But you took two of my babies,” continuing to nod like a dope.
Death sighed heavily, puffing air from what or where I don’t know—he had no lungs that I could see, and I could see through him to his cloak. He pulled it closer around him. Could Death be self-conscientious? I nearly giggled. Lordy, I was easily distracted. “Look, it was Sassy’s time. I had nothing to do with that. It was her fate to die last week from leukemia, for which, by the way, I’m truly sorry. She was a lovely cat, a stately queen in an earlier life, and likely royalty in a future life. Humans won’t be aware of this, of course, since we’re so ignorant.”
“Was. Where do you think Death comes from? Another species? That’s another story, one for a more relevant time, when you need such information, and you will need it, I guarantee it.”
Did Death just threaten me? Warn me? Was I to be the next incarnation? Holy shit! No way!
“Focus!” he said.
“I came here to tell you that I followed our deal by cutting two seconds off Lulu’s leap across the street. She was the sacrifice, not Sassy. I have another appointment, so I can’t linger. Please stop casting aspersions upon my name. It’s fear-mongering, untrue, and can hurt only you in the future. Trust me.”
I nodded and Death left my home quietly, groaning and moaning and twisting and turning to crack his spine. He touched two bony fingers to his browridge and clumped downstairs to fly away on his fiery steed. I watched long after they were gone, contemplating his mysterious words and feeling a bit better about Sassy, who wasn’t cheated after all. Then I wondered where the spicy milk went when he drank it.
Steve Carr’s first collection of short stories is fantastic. His work is intense, reaching into the reader’s head and twisting emotions, shattering logic and reason. The first story Tenderloin is—pun intended—a punch in the gut, as the reader sees the grittiness of the setting and feels the coiled tension in the main character, a veteran of the Iraq War. With journalistic expertise, Carr displays monstrous humanity in a brevity of words, as in The Saguaro Two Step, in which the woman wins the loot in the end, and exposes desperation, as in The Festival of The Cull, wherein Shamina can no longer vote on who is to be terminated. Reality bends as one ventures further into the book, as in the self-explanatory The Girl in a Mason Jar, gets fishy in Strange Water, and disappears in When Wizards Sing, where animals and men blend. The stories are diverse, with main characters of various genders, sexual orientations, ages, cultures, and even species. The book ends with stories of the afterlife on a never-ending train ride for incorrigibles, a man’s struggle for gravity, and the misplaced hope of a senior citizen. Definitely a must-read! Follow Steve on Facebook and Twitter. Purchase Sand at Lulu.com or Amazon.com.
Never Touch It
I couldn’t stop looking at it. None of my friends had cell phones. Dad had argued that a ten-year-old didn’t need a cell phone, especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. My mother was a smotherer and had been working Dad for years, and now I had a Smartphone.
“Jimmy, put that stupid thing away and come on!” Ronak screamed back at me as he raced down our street toward the forest.
I stuffed the phone in my shorts pocket and rode after him, feeling the bulk of it banging my thigh as I pumped. It felt like I had the world in my pocket. The forest surrounded me when I hit the edge of the road at the T and bounced along the dirt path to our treehouse that Ronak and I built two years ago.
After dropping my bike next to his, I climbed up the rope ladder to find Ronak waiting impatiently. He too loved to play Angry Birds on my phone and hated that I always played first. It was my phone. I settled into the pile of pillows next to him and pulled out my phone. The game icon was on the screen. I poked it and started level 34, which was killing me. Because of the challenges at certain levels, we’d instituted a new rule of all lives lost before switching if we didn’t level up.
“Dude, you suck!” he yelled as he punched me, bumping my arm, which caused me to miss my target and lose my last life. He snatched the phone from me.
“That’s not fair! You made me lose my last life!” We wrestled amongst the pillows, pushing them out of the way, scraping our elbows and knees on the rough wooden floor from the unfinished wood planks. A tingle-a-ling-a-ling announced a text. “Give me my phone. That’s a text from my mom. If I don’t answer it, she’ll make me come home.”
Ronak handed me the phone with a sigh and rolled onto his back to inspect his elbows. I looked at the text. Mom didn’t usually text so soon after I left. Mostly just to let me know to come home for lunch.
“Look. It’s not from my mom.”
“What? Who else would text you? I though only your mom had your number?”
We read the text together, “Don’t touch it! Never touch it!” There was no number, only a blank space.
That was the first communication from Lorena, who explained that she lived in a parallel universe. Even though they could read her texts, my parents called her my invisible friend throughout my entire childhood, convincing my best friend, though he’d been there for the first message.
For years, I had no clue what “it” was, for she was not forthcoming with an explanation. We discussed everything else. Her responses came always a day later, apparently due to some time-space interference that I still don’t fully comprehend. She had no clue why we could communicate by text, just that it was a rare phenomenon which made her a minor celebrity in her town and me a weirdo in mine.
In a new home way out in the country, my dad decided to get satellite TV, and a dish hung off the southwest corner of our house. We got some new stations, some in different languages, intriguing my dad, who watched despite the language barrier. He especially loved Bollywood films in Hindi.
“Dad, that’s the doll! In the left corner on the dresser.” He spit air through his teeth and changed the channel. “There it is again! I swear—on the bookshelf next to the blue book.” Another channel.
Before I could point it out on top of the fridge in the soap opera, Dad burst out with, “Stop it! Just stop it!” He took a deep breath and continued, “Son, it’s not there. You’re old enough to give up these games. No one sees it. It’s not there. No connection with your invisible friend. It’s time to let her go, Jimmy.” He held out his hand to me, man to man. “Deal?”
I shook his hand and said, “Deal,” and mentioned it not once more, though it appeared on every show.
Again and again, Lorena texted, “Don’t touch it! Never touch it!” Why, I don’t know. It was on TV. I couldn’t touch it.
Until I was 21 and saw the little, pinkish, angelic papier-mache doll in a store, sitting on a shelf next to toothpaste. Then another store, right by the candy I was choosing. I noticed it as I was picking up the bag, and I dropped the bag at my feet, picked it up, and went on my day. It was unnerving to be so close to a forbidden object from a parallel universe that no one else here could see.
I married in my mid-30s a widow with two children, children I adopted and love as my own. Lorena knows about my wife, yet she remains my secret. I’m still in the dark about her connection to the freaky, papier-mache doll that I’m now seeing everywhere. My wife knows nothing.
Last Tuesday, the doll appeared in the fridge behind the milk. I spilled milk all over the floor when I saw her. I cleaned it up, but I did not cry. Honestly, I wanted to cry. I mean, in the fridge…really?
Lorena chose to stay with the woman who was selected as her youth partner after school. She says this often happens. I’m glad she’s happy. I know that throughout her life she has continued to be a recognizable figure for her unusual connection to me. I, however, may be going mad from it. That freaking doll is everywhere, and I’m not supposed to touch it. I don’t know the consequences of such an action, but my lifelong fear of accidentally doing so keeps me on edge as she proliferates in my life. I have no one to talk to about this. Not even Lorena.
I now stand still in my living room, staring at my little girl as she gradually morphs into a little, pink angel.
Sharon watched the teenagers approach, knowing the helmet screen was a 2-way mirror. She screamed and banged the metal with her fists and stomped her feet, but cushioning absorbed the sounds. The girl jumped back, startled. The girl asked the boy a question, but he shook his head. The girl blinked a couple times and laughed when the boy poked her and thrust his hands at her to scare her.
Hope died like a candle extinguished. She recalled when she and her boyfriend had come out to the deserted shack deep in the forest, where the inexplicable astronaut suit stood. Rumors held that it came from a defunct amusement park. It had no real functionality, made from metal and heavily solid, as evidenced by the girl tapping on it and pushing it.
Sharon’s boyfriend had gone into the shack while she had investigated the suit. A hand had clamped over her mouth, holding her head tight to someone’s chest as another hand reached around to open the astronaut with a little key that had not been obvious to her. The hands shoved her into the astronaut so quickly that she’d not even thought to fight back yet. She was positioned in a flash and the astronaut suit closed. She didn’t hear the snick of the key, but once she recognized her situation, she found that the suit was securely closed.
Her boyfriend wandered out of the shack, shrugging as though there were nothing to worry about inside. She’d been looking forward to this new adventure—outdoor sex in a forbidden area. Now she witnessed her own disappearance through her boyfriend’s behavior. He called her name for hours, beat the hood of his car, and drove away. Returning with him were her parents and police officers, who searched the premises with flashlights, had a head-hanging conversation with her parents, and also drove off well before morning.
Sharon watched volunteers meet in front of the shack to search for her. When the search party was clearly over, she slumped in the suit waiting to die, wondering if she would succumb to thirst first, as she’d always read. She didn’t know how long she’d been in the suit when she saw the teenagers, who now were fucking in the shack, oblivious to her distress.
She cried without tears.
Singing woke Anthony each morning. He went to bed anticipating the morning serenade. Of course it was in Irish, so he didn’t catch all the words, but the clear voice of his wife Aisling urged him from bed with a yearning to touch her and hug her and kiss her and call her his precious. Life began for him when he saw ash-blond Aisling working in a public house on his visit to Ireland to meet long-lost cousins found through his ancestral investigation. One of the cousins knew her name, but that was all. Not even a summer romance; no words exchanged, only a smile that stopped the world for Anthony.
He returned to the village of his cousins as a Christmas gift to himself. He went to the public house each evening for supper. Until she spoke more than business with him. He met her parents, promising them to care for her until the end of his days, promising as many trips home for her as possible. Aisling came home with him to Connecticut the following summer, after an Irish wedding in her hometown, which all of his cousins attended.
Within a year of marriage, Anthony was working from home, while Aisling attended college to become a kindergarten teacher. In October, she became pregnant. In December, she was no longer pregnant, returning to school hollow-eyed and trembling, but looking forward to the internship at a nearby elementary school in the spring.
The next autumn, the second baby died. Grief carried over from the first child, her sorrow sung out to the world. By the end of spring, Aisling was ready to try again. Alas, she could not bring a child to life. Unable to console his wife, Anthony brought her mother to Connecticut. Mama made no difference, as Aisling weakened, listless, refusing to eat. True melancholy ate her from the inside out. Her kindergarten class missed their student teacher. The family of every child attended her funeral.
Between the school and Anthony’s home is a park where the children claim they hear singing, but not in words. They don’t know Aisling speaks Irish. This is why Anthony brings his work to the park. He visits the same bench every single day, listening to Aisling sing until her voice becomes wind.